Why do some attempts at tone of voice fail?

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Liz, July 3, 2017

A little while ago we did an audit of all the tone of voice work we had ever done. I had a hunch – which turned out to be accurate – that at least half of our tone of voice projects since 2009 have been rescue jobs.

By this, I mean another agency or freelancer has had a first stab at creating a tone of voice for an organisation – but it just hasn’t worked out. So we pick it up, look at what’s happened and set out on a more solid path.

It’s a situation that gives you some really good insight into what doesn’t work – and why.

What should tone of voice be doing for your organisation?

But before we get into the detail of situations that don’t work, it’s worth having a quick look at what a successful tone of voice should be doing for you.

Here at Wordtree, when we talk about tone of voice, we’re not just thinking about a few clever lines – or God forbid, a couple of pages of “tone of voice guidelines” dropped into the back of a 100+ page document on visual branding.

When we talk tone of voice, we’re talking about a programme of organisation-wide change in communications and behaviour. Our tone of voice projects are underpinned by a framework that’s completely aligned with and rooted in the brand. They’re supported by comprehensive guidelines that are full of easy-to-follow examples. And we roll it out with training, awareness events and support.

What you get as a result is a company–wide shift towards brand-aligned, customer-centric communications and behaviour. And as a result of that, you get slicker processes and teams who are happier, more collaborative and more productive.

So how do you know if your tone of voice isn’t cutting it?

You hired an agency who told you they specialised in tone of voice. They hummed and hawed and tutted as they read through your current communications. Then they handed you a new set of guidelines to sort everything out. There was a lot of excitement around the launch of your new tone of voice. Your first teams go for training sessions – and then either straight away or in the medium term, things start going wonky.

Perhaps people come back from training confused. Or they like the training but don’t quite see how it relates to their own work. Or they think they see how it relates to their work… but their communications don’t get any better. We’ve also gone into situations where different individuals and teams came away from tone of voice training with completely different understandings of what it meant – so consistency goes out of the window.

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Signs your tone of voice isn’t working:

  • Your teams think it’s optional
  • Your teams don’t know about it
  • Your teams want to use it – but it’s too chirpy to use for serious communications
  • Not all of your teams have embraced it
  • Some of your teams have kept “old” versions of their documents and are still using them because they like them better
  • Your communications aren’t improving – and they’re not getting better results
  • You can’t explain it to new team members
  • It’s making your processes more complex rather than simpler
  • You still have middle managers who refuse to sign it off
  • No-one gets it
  • No-one uses it

So why do so many attempts at tone of voice fail?

There are, of course, a number of reasons that tone of voice can fail. These are the ones we see most often…

Not rooted in the brand

This is the number one reason we see for tone of voice not getting traction. Here at Wordtree, we describe tone of voice as personality expressed in words. So it’s kind of essential that the personality any tone of voice expresses is that of the brand it’s ascribed to.

It sounds bleeding obvious – but you might be surprised how often this doesn’t happen.

There’s a blurry understanding of tone of voice in some circles. For example, we’ve seen the same agency submit exactly the same tone of voice, rules and guidelines for three different clients (remember, we’ve had eyes on an awful lot of work that has gone wrong).

By its very nature, a tone of voice should be bespoke. You can’t have identical visual identities – and you certainly can’t have identical verbal identities either. It’s a nonsense. And yet, there are agencies out there peddling tone of voice/verbal identity “products” which mean they substitute CLIENT A for CLIENT B in a set of generic guidelines, get a freelance copywriter to bang out a couple of examples – and Bob is your budgie.

At best, this approach is about better writing. But it’s not tone of voice – it’s not an “identity”. At worst, it’s a scam.

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Sometimes it’s not agencies who do this, but freelancers. A few years ago, I was working with a fintech company that had made a series of rapid acquisitions and wanted to bring a branded consistency to all its new branches of activity. One of the teams told me: “We have a tone of voice already and it kind of works and we like all the exercises – so please just let us get on with what we have…” I asked to look at this fab tone of voice they were working with (because, you know, it’s good to learn from people who are doing it brilliantly as well). I opened their “exercise” documents and almost choked on my coffee. Staring back at me was the tone of voice I’d created for a large pensions and long-term savings and investment company. It even included the style guide I’d created – along with my date of birth as an example of how to write a date.

It turned out the fintech company had commissioned a freelancer to create their tone of voice. And that freelancer had whipped my training and support materials from a session they’d attended in Edinburgh – then sold them on to another client (big blue bum of monkey!).

Sometimes, brand platforms haven’t gone so far as to codify personality. So if we start working with an organisation that hasn’t defined its personality, that’s the first thing we need to do – building on the existing brand platform so that we have a stable foundation to work from.

When we’re looking into a tone of voice that hasn’t worked, it’s often because this element of the brand platform is missing – and in its absence, the agency or freelancer has just gone ahead with whatever seemed best. But because it’s not anchored in anything that can be benchmarked or defended, it can be too open to interpretation – or too easy to dismiss. In the worst cases, it’s just not even appropriate for the brand in the first place.

The bottom line is, a tone of voice has to be bespoke. There’s no other way of doing it and having it work long term.

No flexibility has been built in

When we’re training people to use tone of voice, we often say something like: “We all have quirks and turns of speech that are identifiably ours. And that’s because we all as individuals express our own personalities with the words we use (and the words we choose not to use). But we all have occasions where we allow more of our personality out than others. For example, in a job interview, we might be a more polite and restrained version of ourselves… but out with friends and family, we’re more likely to let our personality out on full volume…”

It’s our way of introducing our device of Volume Control®. We build it into every single tone of voice that we create – and it gives the ability to flex from the most serious to the most light-hearted of communications. Because you can’t send someone an email that says: “Hiya matey! OMG, your dog died!” You need the flexibility – even if you’re the chirpiest, cheekiest of brands, to be able to say: “Hi Liz. So sorry to hear about your doggie…” Otherwise, your customers won’t love you for your cheekiness. They’ll just hate you for your insensitivity.

Using FMCG approaches

I worked for a few years in an FMCG brand design agency. It was a great agency with great clients – and it was a whole lot of fun and hard work.

But here’s the thing. FMCG branding approaches only work if you have physical products that are going to line up on the shelf next to rival physical products. By this, I mean your bottle of shampoo is eye-catching and quirky/luxury/natural/whatever enough to grab attention and make a shopper stop their trolley to look at your stuff above anyone else’s.

This “shelf standout” approach to branding is highly visual. The visual attracts shoppers’ attention. The language retains attention and informs. It’s a formula that works wonderfully well if your business is on a shelf.

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But it can be an expensive waste of time if you’re in professional services, financial services, B2B, energy, consultancy… or any of the billions of products and services that you can’t get in a supermarket.

In an FMCG situation, a tone of voice typically only exists on packaging. There are rare exceptions – and I’ve been proud to be involved in some of them – but by and large, “tone of voice” for FMCG products just means a handful of lines, written in a similar style by a very small number of copywriters. This kind of thing can be great fun to write – but it’s hardly the result of a systematic programme of branded change.

And if we’re just talking bottles on shelves, you can get away with this ultra-ultra lite approach to tone of voice. But you can’t in a large corporation – especially one that doesn’t make things to go on shelves.

Yet we’ve seen plenty of attempts at tone of voice that have failed because they’ve taken the shampoo bottle approach.

Not created by the right people

Who would you get to create a tone of voice for your organisation? A writer? (Seems reasonable.) Or a brand consultant? (That could feel right too…)

We say get someone who has both brand consultancy and writing skills. We’ve seen fails that have come about through writers being too writerly and getting overly caught up in explaining the minutest points of grammar. Which is just showing off – and not likely to win you many friends.

We’ve also seen consultant gobbledegook, which may have gone down well in the board room, but that means diddly squat to the people who are meant to use it.

And because getting tone of voice to work is as much about selling it in as it is creating it, you need someone who understands – and can work within – a corporate environment. You need someone who understands the processes and the ways to get buy-in.

Not enough budget

If you wanted us to run a brand language programme for you – creating a tone of voice and embedding it across your corporation – the minimum we’d quote you would be around the £35k mark. Why? Because we’re talking about several days of specialist consultancy, writing, training and awareness raising. And to do it right takes resource.

In my experience, the two types of potential clients who are most likely to under-budget for tone of voice are the public sector and multiservice creative agencies.

Public sector procurement processes usually mean that budgets have to be set before work is tendered out. We saw one on the government’s e-procurement portal last year for a medium-sized public sector organisation. It called for a tone of voice, guidelines, training for 50+ people – as well as several core documents re-writing. The amount set aside? £7k, inclusive of VAT and travel expenses.

We didn’t respond. But someone will have done. Potentially peddling a second-hand tone of voice or a crappy two-pager. The whole thing is a complete waste of time.

Do we have a responsibility to educate organisations about the value of the work we do? Yes, of course we do. But in the meantime, shoddy pay is buying shoddy work that later needs to be fixed – and when it’s public sector organisations doing it, they’re flushing taxpayers’ money down the lav.

Not enough appetite and buy-in

As we’ve covered in a previous point, the easiest part of changing the way a whole organisation uses language is creating a tone of voice. The much harder part is getting everyone to go: “OK, that’s a good idea, let’s do it.”

Even a technically sound tone of voice can falter if an organisation’s people haven’t been consulted and made part of the programme.

Before we even start creating a tone of voice, we talk to people. We find out what their challenges and concerns are. We set expectations (we’ll listen to everything you say, but we may not act on everything you say). We challenge some views and thinking. We find out about sign-off processes. We talk to the legal and compliance teams. Because if you’re going to stand a chance of getting tone of voice to bring about sustained change, you need to let everyone know what’s happening and you need to give people the opportunity to talk to you and share their views.

Then you need to keep involving people. We make a campaign out of launching a new tone of voice – because you need it to be front of mind for people and you need them to buy into it.

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No executive sponsor

A few years ago, we created a tone of voice for an organisation. It was rooted in the brand, it had great guidelines and people loved the training sessions. But “policing” the tone of voice and maintaining consistency became an issue we never quite got to grips with. Why? I’ve been over this many times in my head, raking things in one direction and then another. And I truly believe the reason this attempt to change communications and behaviour never quite took hold across the board was because we had no nuclear option when we met stiff resistance.

In that particular company, resistance came from a number of legal teams. And because the project had no cheerleader on the board, they were free to block. The project was part of a rebrand that also had no executive sponsor. No-one internally owned the brand or the tone of voice. A bunch of external consultants (Wordtree included) had been hired to bring about change by a brand manager who moved on midway through the project.

It still gives me the heebies thinking about that project. And I’m now always keen to establish – from the very beginning of a project – who owns it and who will step in to unblock situations on the very rare occasions this kind of help is needed.

Don’t under-estimate what’s involved

Changing the language – and mindset – of a whole organisation is a big deal. Anyone who says it isn’t probably doesn’t have a good enough grasp of what’s involved. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and rewarding – because it most definitely is.

If you’d like to find out more about how we create tone of voice, take a look at our book. And if you’d like to talk tone of voice with us, please get in touch. We’ll make sure your verbal identity is robust, rooted in your brand – and brings about positive change across the whole of your organisation.

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